Nov. 27, 1995
Vol. 15, No. 6

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    Lomnitz: Understanding history of corruption in Mexico

    Conference to be held on campus Nov. 30-Dec. 2 Although inhabitants of Mexico decry the presence of corruption in their society, corruption has been a force in public life there since colonial times, said Claudio Lomnitz, who joined the University faculty this fall as Professor in History.

    Lomnitz, who has been studying corruption in Mexico for more than a decade, is organizing the conference "Corruption and Society in Mexico," which will be held from Thursday, Nov. 30, through Saturday, Dec. 2, in Swift Hall. Among the presenters will be Lomnitz, who will give the opening address at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, and Friedrich Katz, the Morton D. Hall Distinguished Service Professor in History. (For more information, see the Calendar, pages 6-8.)

    Lomnitz said he became interested in corruption while doing fieldwork in rural Mexico in the late 1970s. "It seemed that everyone was talking about corruption and blaming officials for committing it. At the same time, if you looked at municipal finances, resources were so scarce that overstepping legal norms was necessary just to carry out the officers' ascribed functions," Lomnitz said. "Moreover, I was intrigued by the fact that although people complained about stealing on the part of officials, many also said that they would do the same thing if they had the power."

    These initial points of interest led Lomnitz to study the historical transformation of corrupt practices, as well as the history of public discourse on corruption. Corruption is a broad theme with different sociological meanings in various times and places. When speaking of corruption, people in Mexico, for example, don't mean the same sort of public embarrassment that Americans often associate with corruption. Sexual misconduct by a government official would not necessarily be viewed as a corruption of that office, for instance, Lomnitz said.

    "On the whole, Mexicans are more likely to think that there is a difference between a person's private life and his or her public life. They are willing to concede that someone can do a good job as a politician and have a disreputable private life. Americans are much more likely to see the two as being correlated," he said.

    In Mexico, corruption consists of an intricate system of exchanges in which support for public officials is given in return for certain privileges. Payments of money to ensure that routine services are rendered are also part of the mix, as are elaborate public ceremonies in which hosts extract favors from their politician guests in return for support.

    "Corruption as a series of phenomena has played an important role in social change and in social reproduction in Mexico," Lomnitz writes in the article "Ritual, Rumor and Corruption in the Constitution of Polity in Modern Mexico," to appear in November in the first issue of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology.

    "Corruption was significant in the emergence of a local bourgeoisie, in undermining the ascriptive weight of race and caste, in the economic reproduction of the so-called informal sector and, not least, in the shaping of a powerful political class.

    "On the other hand, corruption has also played a central role in conserving privilege, in keeping competitors out of specific markets, in creating an organized labor sector that stands apart from other sectors of the working class and in conserving the prerogatives of lineage."

    History of corruption

    After the conquistadors arrived in Mexico and established Spanish rule, officials were appointed by the crown and expected to extract money from local sources to support themselves. Often the appointments were for a short period of time, and they were acquired by purchase.

    "It was like buying into a business. You were expected to make it profitable for yourself," Lomnitz said.

    Besides the official state corruption, there was corruption in the church. The church had its own source of income and dispensed offices in exchange for money.

    "Local constituencies could at times play these two sets of actors against each other," Lomnitz writes. "Villagers participated fervently in their fiestas in part as a show of alliance with the church, which might then intervene in their favor against the abuse of landowners or officials. On the other hand, suits and revolts against priests were brought to civil authorities."

    After independence, the system continued, with poorly paid bureaucrats again expected to extract additional payments to make up for shortfalls from the tax revenue. "In most cases there just wasn't enough money to pay for the services people needed, so corruption developed as a means of raising revenue, although it has always been more than a way of financing government operations," Lomnitz said.

    "The state came to be seen as a giant pyramid with the most influential people at the top and everyone else below them also benefiting from bribes, tips, patronage or misappropriations of funds and resources. This particular version of 'trickle-down economics' developed its own set of norms and public expectations," he explained.

    How ritual reinforces corruption

    In the modern era, festivals have become an important means for politicians and local leaders to extract support from their constituents by demonstrating their generosity. The mechanism is also at work in the ways in which the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, maintains its hold on the people. Leaders use local resources for the purpose of supporting the party's electoral campaigns.

    "For example, governors and municipal presidents use up their budgets to show their personal support of a presidential candidate and, through that personal support, the support of the collectivities to which they are linked," Lomnitz writes. "On the other hand, as in the fiesta, participants in campaign events are also meant to gain things for themselves: a day off work, free food and a fiesta, or at least a renewed relationship with their immediate patron."

    The rituals become occasions for the elite to demonstrate their dominance and for the underprivileged to try to extract benefits in exchange for support.

    As the role of the state in social welfare and in the economy diminishes, the place of corruption and the ways in which it is talked about, criticized and resisted are undergoing change, Lomnitz said.

    Some of these changes may create institutional transformations that affect the dynamics of corruption -- there is currently a movement in Mexico, for example, that seeks to strengthen the judiciary branch of government. On the other hand, the social demands of the poor are greater than ever, and, correspondingly, so are political pressures on government. As a result, it is likely that patronage and other such forms of corruption will continue as a strategy that favors political stability, Lomnitz said.

    For instance, the mayor of Mexico City recently decided to rid the city of peddlers, who supported the reigning party in exchange for being allowed to eke out a living on the street. By banning peddling, the mayor eliminated state patronage and protection for the peddlers, who in turn will likely not support his party. The ban ultimately threatens the stability of the city government, Lomnitz said.

    "The cleanup probably won't last," he said. "Other mayors have promised the same thing, and after a while the whole system of accommodation returns."

    -- William Harms